For Release Friday, October 30, 2009
Halloween’s ghouls and goblins make for a spooky night in our cities and towns. But nothing fills me with more fright than missing the opportunity to build dense, attractive transit villages around our rail stations, thereby reducing sprawl and lowering our collective carbon footprint.
I’ve seen the upside opportunity in London, New York City, Chicago and elsewhere–housing, offices, shopping and leisure destinations all within a short walk of transit stations. The overriding equation is density, a notion that is frightening to many.
A number of leading urban experts, demographers and think-tanks are forecasting that more cities will develop like this in the future. The Urban Land Institute’s recent “The City in 2050″ is loaded with visions of high-tech, denser cities with improved transit systems and a reduced carbon footprint. Coupled with these visions are studies by the likes of the demographer Arthur C. Nelson, who predicts that demand for large-lot single-family housing will be negligible in the next 20 years, whereas the future of housing development lies in attached housing.
The stars seem to be aligning. Or are they? The popular strategy for accommodating the future vision of smarter, denser cities, coupled with meeting forecast housing demand, is transit villages like those found in our older and popular cities. The idea is that these transit villages will have areas next to urban rail stations that accommodate intense development, thereby reducing the population’s carbon footprint and making cities more efficient.
A number of very attractive and popular transit villages have emerged in the past decade in cities like Dallas, Denver and Portland. Well-known places like Mockingbird Station, Englewood, and Orenco Station are favorites among planners, developers and transit village advocates. I’ve seen these and other newer transit villages, and they are not ghost-towns–far from it. They are popular for good reason, as they provide very attractive, walkable places with a mix of uses and access to the regional transit system.
However, I’ve noticed in many cases that these newer transit villages lack the density achieved in older, established cities. Perhaps these newer transit villages are just testing the waters, a primer for cities and developers to ramp up density in the future. But I wonder if we are selling ourselves short.
Are we greening our cities, or are we just dressing up auto-dependent sprawl in a transit village costume? Do we really have the proper regulatory tools, and more importantly, the public and political will, to achieve the density required for truly greener, more efficient cities?
True, most new rail lines in the United States connect to major employment centers, stadiums, university campuses, airports, and other major destinations. All that boosts ridership–as it should. Too frequently, though, plans for residential development within a half-mile of rail stations call for too few housing units to make a dent in cities’ growth projections.
For example, the two new light rail lines planned in the Twin Cities will add 30 new stations to the metro area. Current station area plans call for approximately 30,000 new housing units in the next 20 years. That seems like a lot, but it is just 10 percent of the 300,000 new households forecast for the Twin Cities in that time period. We need to ask: shouldn’t these station areas handle more of the total, like one-quarter or one-third? Increased intensity around each station will accommodate more of the metro area demand for housing and increase transit usage, reducing strain on roads and lowering vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Multiply this by upping the density around new train stations around the country and you start to curb the effects of sprawl.
Furthermore, increased density and a more robust mix of uses within transit villages makes them more active and increases trips on foot, even for people not using the transit system. A common standard for the number of housing units required to support a small, full-service grocery store, for example, is 10,000. Building a small fraction of that total in a transit village won’t support a grocer.
Arlington, Virginia, is appropriately cited as a top example of recent policy to create appropriate intensity around transit stations. There, a “bulls-eye” policy–to locate an intense mix of housing and other uses close to the five train stations along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor–has resulted in the appropriate density to boost demand for retail and other services within each transit village. The corridor also boasts very high ridership and modal splits. Arlington County’s success in getting a disproportionate amount of its real estate taxes from the intense uses along the corridor is a positive outcome of good land use policy. What is so spooky about that?
The ideal vision of the city in the future is more density built around transit villages. Demographic and housing demand forecasts support this vision. One cannot wave a magic wand and reverse sprawl, however. Lurking in the shadows are the NIMBYs, who will affect the political will to intensify uses at station areas, and increase the specter of sprawl-as-usual. But let’s not run in fear from the creation of attractive dense transit villages. Why? Business-as-usual is our scariest option, indeed!
Sam Newberg’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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